America Lacks Moral Formation

David Brooks wrote an important article for the Atlantic that was simply titled, “How America Got Mean.” His conclusion was both insightful and deeply disturbing. 

No one denies that we’ve become a mean-spirited culture. We’ve become increasingly rude and cruel and abusive and violent. Whether it’s toward a waiter at a restaurant, a nurse at a hospital, a teacher at a school or road rage on the interstate, we’ve become… mean. Coupled with this is our increasing lack of compassion and empathy for others. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity. In 2018, fewer than half did.

As Brooks notes, there are many reasons offered for this.

There’s the technology story—that social media is driving us all crazy.

There is the sociology story—that we’ve stopped participating in community organizations and are more isolated.

There is the demography story—that America, long a white-dominated nation, is becoming a much more diverse country; a change that has millions of white Americans in a panic.

There is the economy story—that high levels of economic inequality and insecurity have left people afraid, alienated and pessimistic.

And obviously, all of these are having an effect. But Brooks argues, and I agree, that the deepest issue is that we are no longer schooled in kindness and consideration. Which means we live in a world where people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.

It’s all about morals.

In a healthy society you have a web of institutions – families, schools, religious groups, community organizations and workplaces – that help form people into kind and responsible citizens.

We don’t have that today. We don’t have moral formation, which, Brooks outlines, involves three things: first, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness; second, teaching basic social and ethical skills—things like welcoming a neighbor into a community or disagreeing with someone constructively; and third, helping people find a purpose in life.

We used to be concerned with teaching and developing virtue—with molding the heart along with the head. This wasn’t just in schools, but rather throughout all of culture—Sunday school, the YMCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

And here’s what’s important: what was taught along those lines was not seen as a matter of personal taste. There was an objective moral order, there was transcendent truth. Further, human beings were seen as creatures who were, by nature, sinners against that moral order.

This isn’t about trying to paint the past in some airbrushed, overly nostalgic way. An emphasis on morality – past or present – doesn’t create perfect people. But what can be said is that any and all attempts at moral formation are now gone. Any sense of an objective moral order is gone. Any sense of transcendent truth is gone.

We now have little more than radical individualism. Morality is not something that we find outside of ourselves in, say, a spiritual faith, or even within a community. It’s in ourselves. It’s our own voice. We are our own moral compass. Along with that is the rejection of any sense of being sinners. If anything, we are seen as naturally good.

And psychology has replaced morality in terms of how to raise children. While psychology is all well and good, it’s goal – and specialty – is mental health, not moral growth. So you can even chart the decline of moral words in books, such as the words bravery, gratitude and humbleness.

Or look at college students. Researchers have asked incoming college students about their goals in life for decades. In 1967, approximately 85% of college students said they were strongly motivated to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. By 2015, the number one goal was to make money.

All this to say, as Brooks concludes, in a culture devoid of moral education, you have a generation growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world.

Whatever feels good to us is moral.

We do what makes us happy.

But that does not lead to a “You do you, and I’ll do me” world. Or, as we used to say, “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.” What happens is that we become internally fragile. You have no moral compass to guide you, no permanent ideals to which you can swear ultimate allegiance.

The psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl famously said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how.’” But those without a “why” fall apart when storms hit.

Now play this out.

If you are morally naked and alone, having no skills to know how or even why to be decent or kind to someone, what does that lead to? Couple this with how we see ourselves as the center of the universe. Social media has helped us become addicted to thinking about ourselves.

We’re anxious and insecure.

We’re sensitive to rejection. 

All of us this leads to triggers of distrust and hostility. When there is no moral framework, it leads to a breakdown of relationships. You become estranged from others. And sadness and loneliness often turn into bitterness. And violence. We get callous, defensive, distrustful and hostile.

Now here’s where this plays into the political situation.

Brooks notes that over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. We’ve become hyper-politicized. Ideology has replaced theology, even in the lives of Christians. Good and evil aren’t about the human heart—ithey’re about groups: us vs. them and good guys vs. bad guys. Morality isn’t about personal conduct, but rather where you are on the political spectrum. Much of it fueled by resentment.

And that is how we got so mean.

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This article originally appeared on and is reposted here by permission.